Kage Baker was the daughter of a soldier. That was important to her, though she had no personal memory of his service. She was born long after he fought in the Burma Theatre in WWII, after he was part of Winston Churchill’s honour guard in Cairo, after he snapped a photo from a plane that shows a small section of lost Ubar in the Sahara (Anne still has it).
Nor was he the sort of man who told war stories. We knew what he had done, but what little he told us was on the level of a history lesson – things we needed to know. In my experience, the men who have the real stories are the least likely to talk much about their wars. It wasn’t an adventure, it wasn’t fun. Real soldiers don’t boast much.
But growing up in the 1950’s, as we did, WWII was as pervasive in American culture as Betty Crocker and baseball. We knew all about it. Television was new but universal in our childhood, and it was full of WWII.
In fact, Kage and I thought Walter Cronkite’s 20th Century television show was a live news program. It took the nuns in grammar school to convince us that WWII was actually over. This despite the fact that I was born on the day the Korean Armistice was signed, and so current events were much fuller of Korean aftermaths than German or Japanese … I just thought it had all run together, and everywhere else in the world was a black-and-white nightmare of bomb shells and ruined buildings. (There has not been peace in the world since that day, incidentally …)
Kage seemed to have inherited Daddy’s memories somehow. WWII was much more real and immediate to her than other, actual news. Shows like 20th Century undoubtedly played a part in that, but Mr. Cronkite never talked about shore leave in Singapore, or what it was like to walk home from the souk in Alexandria keeping an eye out for antagonistic Russian sailors, or the St. Loyola scapular Daddy found on a dead Japanese soldier … Kage knew things. She was his first born, and more seemed to have come down to her than her Iroquois cheekbones and black eyes.
She was born with a portion of 1944 playing in her head, and grew up slightly adrift in time. This was so natural to her that it was unremarkable. She was used to chronic immersion. She drifted more and more as she got older – as I said, I was sometimes unsure what city she was walking in beside me, or when – and finally she regarded time as a single broad spectrum of energy: she tuned in like a radio to whatever program she wanted, and was fascinated as well by the occasional ghostly voices that wailed out from between the station ID’s.
So Daddy’s soldier days were real and immediate to Kage, though she was born a almost a decade after his gut-shot exit from Burma. She knew what it was like to wait for a soldier. She knew what it was like to welcome back a man, or a corpse, or broken and brittle fragments in a box. When we were young women and our age-mates were coming back from Vietnam in all those states, Kage … remembered what should be said and done. Our school mates held protests and shouted petitions to the government; on the day of the student strike, Kage wore black ribbons on her sleeves and defiantly read out “Flanders Fields.” She abhorred the war; but she loved the soldiers.
She always wore a poppy on this day. They were easier to come by when we were kids; old men with scars and pieces of uniforms handed them to you at bus stops. Kage got a new one visiting Daddy in the Veterans’ Hospital some years back, and kept it. I have it now. I found it in her desk drawer.
I wear it for the dead, all the dead. The honoured, beloved, much-missed dead.
Tomorrow: heading north to build London